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SGA 2: The Power Of Groups

Applying usability principles to the problem of inaction had me thinking in some broad circles before I started getting somewhere with it.
The main issue is where to apply these principles. You can’t just change the entire world to make it more usable. That’s ludicrous. (Well, you can, but such a change would require such a huge amount of effort and rethinking that the project would make itself redundant.)
After turning it over a while, I hit upon what felt like a bolt-from-the-sky revelation. I had been approaching the problem from the wrong end. Instead of starting with the problem and looking for solutions, I would start at the solution and work back to the problem.
Er. That doesn’t really make sense. Bear with me here.
Consider groups. When you get a group of people together, instantly you have a social dynamic. This social dynamic is very powerful. If you’re in a group of strangers, that fact exerts massive influence over your behaviour. If you’re in a group of old friends, or family, then your behaviour is similarly hit. Psychology (particularly, but not exclusively, social psychology) has been delving into this stuff for a very long time. Groups can be very powerful ways to affect behaviour.
So, we have a group as a powerful way to influence behaviour. All right then. The first part of our answer is this: “form a group”.
Note that this is “form a group” not “join a group”. Why? Well, either way you end up with membership in a group. One way, you probably have a high level of investment in the success of the group; the other, you probably have a low level of investment in the success of the group. We’re reverse engineering something to be powerful, so we pick the high investment option, and that means forming a group.
How big is this group, ideally? Well, again, the larger the group, the less investment in its success. In big groups, it’s easy to escape any feeling of responsibility for the group’s wellbeing. Additionally, in big groups you have the burden of management. With more people, it gets harder and harder to manage them – you need to develop systems and methods and everything starts getting very impersonal. Compromise becomes more and more essential, to the extent that everyone in the group is compromising all the time.
(These aren’t linear relationships – they’re complex curves, rising and falling as different effects kick in at different group sizes – but for the sake of this potted summary assume more people = less investment, and more people = more management.)
Big groups have huge positives, too, of course. You can do things with big groups that are beyond the wildest dreams of small groups. Amnesty International, my favourite charity, does amazing things that small groups just can’t possibly equal. But this exercise isn’t interested in that. We’re most interested in influencing member behaviour, and that means small groups.
How small? I think 3-7 is a good number, 4-5 is probably ideal. I’ve kinda plcked these numbers out of the air, but not entirely. One of many observations that plugged into this thinking was how functional groups of that size can be. In that general range you get small sports teams, fitness buddies, dieting support groups, role-playing game groups, road trip groups, book clubs, knitting circles, bands… The evidence is that this size group works. My instinct is that this size is the location of one of the tipping points in the relationship between management input and achievement output – smaller than four means less management but much less achievement, while bigger than seven means more achievement at the cost of significantly more management.
So that’s our first step, then. Form a small group. That’s part of our solution. We need to refine this a bit more, add to it, and then work backwards to find out exactly what the problem is that it answers.
I hope I’m not jargonizing you to death. Trying to explain clearly, but most of this is first draft stuff… anyway, more tomorrow…

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Derek | October 6, 2006 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    *Forms his cell and awaits further instruction*

  2. 2trees | October 6, 2006 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Can i be in the group with the best slogan?

  3. billy | October 6, 2006 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve quoted this a bunch of times, but it deserves another airing:
    “How does a movement start, and how does a movement work? What is a “movement”? It’s what the word implies: motion. A movement like that associated with Martin Luther King was not a lot of people following one man. Groups of individuals, acting locally, leading themselves, created the environment in which leaders like King and others emerged. It doesn’t start with a leader. It starts with you. It starts with people getting together with others whom they trust, discussing what they think the problems are, focusing on an issue, deciding upon an action. Grandiosity has no place in this. “The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.”
    It might mean seven of you in a room deciding that one of you should get off your duff and run for local office (school board, city council, planning commission) – and that all of you work toward his/her election. It might mean that, as a group, you volunteer your services to tutor endangered kids – present your bona fides to a church in a dicey neighborhood and offer a program to aid their children. Teach 10 failing kids how not to fail and you’ll have done something in this world. (A group I participated with in the mid-Sixties, East Harlem Action Committee, did such things very effectively.) It might mean many things. You can’t wait for anybody else to figure it out for you. You get together with people you trust and you figure it out yourselves. Bite off a chunk of the trouble for yourself. There is no hope without you. There is no solution without you. Unless you get into motion, there will be no movement.” (Michael Ventura)

  4. morgue | October 6, 2006 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    Derek – :-), but also, anarchist cells I chatted to at the G8 protest fed into this directly.
    And Billy’s Ventura quote was one of the things that kicked this whole line of inquiry off. Venture is incredible. He writes for the Austin Chronicle and is always worth reading.